Commissioner Chloe Eudaly
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly PBOT

Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly has added her voice to the chorus of influential Portland organizations critical of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) plan to widen Interstate 5 in the Rose Quarter. She is also joining those organizations in calling for a more rigorous study into the project's potential environmental impact.

The public comment period for ODOT’s Rose Quarter Improvement Project—which would add two lanes to a 1.7 mile stretch of I-5—ended Monday. In the last week of the comment period, several important institutions, including Portland Public Schools (PPS), the Albina Vision Trust, and Metro all submitted comments raising concerns about the project. On Tuesday, Eudaly, who is the city’s transportation commissioner, issued a statement of her own mirroring many of those organizations’ talking points.

“I’ve been listening and learning about Oregon Department of Transportation's (ODOT) proposed I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project along with the public, and I share many of the concerns expressed by community members,” begins the statement, which Eudaly posted on Facebook.

Those concerns include the following: that highway widening doesn’t actually reduce traffic or lower carbon emissions in the long run; that expanding the highway would do further damage to NE Portland’s Black community, and worsen the air quality at a middle school with a high racial minority population; and that congestion pricing—strategically tolling roads during high traffic times—could be a better solution for the area.

ODOT has maintained that this project would be a good thing for Portland’s traffic and air quality problems, though independent studies and ODOT’s own research refutes this. The department has pointed to its own environmental assessment as proof to their claims, but many local transportation advocates question the veracity of that research.

That’s why Eudaly—along with Metro, PPS, and others—is calling for ODOT to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which requires more research and public input than an environmental assessment does. ODOT told the Mercury last week it had not yet made a decision about whether it will conduct an EIS.

“I am hopeful that, as the Federal Highway Administration reviews the comments and input that came in during the EA process (including numerous comments from the City of Portland), they will determine that an Environmental Impact Statement is needed and the public will have another opportunity to address remaining concerns with the project,” Eudaly said in her statement.

Eudaly’s statement is particularly noteworthy because her previous comments about the project have cautiously walked the line between supporting and opposing it. As she noted in the statement, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) does not have control over how ODOT spends state transportation money, and I-5 is a state-controlled road.

“I've been told that if this project does not move forward, these funds, all $500M for the highway and surface streets, will be reallocated somewhere else in the region,” Eudaly said, “most likely on a significant freeway expansion project such as additional lanes on I-205 around West Linn.”

Eudaly also said she plans on sending a letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC), ODOT’s governing body, asking that congestion pricing on I-5 be in place before the widening project is completed. That would bring the project more into alignment with Portland’s Central City Plan.

“[W]hile congestion pricing brings up other concerns and challenges from the impact on lower-income drivers to traffic diversion onto neighborhood streets which must be addressed, it is the only proven strategy for getting people out of their single occupancy vehicles,” she said.